The Iran Problem

By Jon Alterman

As the world works to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, there is widespread agreement on what failure looks like: an Iranian bomb—or more likely, a number of Iranian bombs—that emboldens the Iranian government, threatens the Middle East, and prompts many of Iran’s neighbors to develop their own weapons, destabilizing the most energy-rich part of the world.

It is harder to define success. For some, success can only come when the Iranian nuclear problem is “solved.” That is, success comes when the government of Iran convincingly renounces any effort to develop nuclear weapons, opens all of its nuclear facilities to international inspection, and reveals the sources for its technology and materials. Anything short of that, they argue, represents a failure, and failures happen every day until success is achieved.

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Defining success narrowly and failure broadly makes it difficult to achieve success on several levels. Few countries have openly renounced their covert nuclear programs, and even fewer have done so under a combination of intense international pressure and what they see as enduring existential security threats. Deep and enduring international differences about the goals of shared nonproliferation efforts also make any success harder to achieve.

The maximalists have a precedent for their ambitions. In essence, what they seek is to have Iran “pull a Gaddafi.” After more than a decade of harsh international sanctions, and following demonstrations of U.S. resolve following September 11, 2001, the Libyan government began exploring ways to end Libya’s pariah status. In 2004, a deal was inked, and it largely held. Gaddafi believed this would insulate him from America’s wrath.

There are at least two problems applying Libya’s lessons to Iran. The first is that Libya had a single dictator rather than a diverse and bickering ruling oligarchy. Gaddafi’s move did not generate bitter internal politics, but a similar deal in Iran would unleash a nasty political struggle. The second is Gaddafi’s fall, which the United States and other Western powers helped abet. The broad message it sent to authoritarian leaders was that a deal with the West provides little additional security.

Some see the real prize of an attack—from the United States or otherwise—as tempting Iran to enter an escalating battle with the United States. If a battle were truly devastating, and some claim that the United States has plans for a three-week campaign that would be, it might remove the government of the Islamic Republic once and for all. Yet, it would do little to shape the post-conflict environment. Even if one assumes widespread opposition to the Iranian government, the recent history of the Middle East illustrates how quickly battles for spoils turn bloody. The new government might pursue the Islamic Republic’s nuclear efforts, just as the ayatollahs pursued the efforts the shah started.

Among the worst military outcomes is a partially successful strike, which would likely solidify rather than blunt Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions, seeing as no country with nuclear weapons ever has been attacked. Iran could push forward its own program, or it could purchase technology and materiel overseas. If nuclear facilities allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty were attacked, Iran would likely withdraw from it, loosening constraints still further and diminishing any visibility into the program. Such an attack would also threaten to shatter international efforts to press for a change in Iranian behavior. A strike could also unleash a range of contingencies that would spike oil prices, drive the fragile global economy into a tailspin, and unleash a trail of death from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

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Jon Alterman holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. This essay is reprinted from the March 2012 issue of CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment.

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